Discord and Ecstasy
Werner Herzog on 'Grizzly Man'
Naturalist Timothy Treadwell had all the makings of a Werner Herzog hero: personal demons, a mysterious and difficult past, a receding hairline, paranoia, grandiosity, and a guiding obsession to protect, live among, and capture on film the grizzly bears of the Alaskan Peninsula. Ultimately his passion destroyed him at the beginning of Grizzly Man, Herzog's documentary of Treadwell's life, death, and filmmaking, a bush pilot describes hauling "four garbage bags full of people" out of the bear who killed and ate Treadwell but Treadwell's fear was civilization, not the wild.
Had Herzog not culled Treadwell's archived footage, shot over five Alaskan summers, and interwoven it with interviews and re-creations of Treadwell's world, he might have remained in the public memory as a happy-faced environmentalist lunatic, as he appeared to be while famously interviewed by David Letterman. Through Herzog's more prismatic lens, we see the truer shadings of Tim Treadwell and catch a glimpse of the wild, beautifully anarchic world he filmed and sought tragically to fully inhabit.
Herzog commented on Grizzly Man while junketing in New York, days before jetting off to Thailand to photograph his next project, the fiction feature Rescue Dawn. In between, he's published a film diary titled Conquest of the Useless and released another documentary, The White Diamond. A science-fiction feature, The Wild Blue Yonder, will be released at the end of the year. Herzog, who professes to hate interviews, was unusually chipper ("You're actually the very first one today; you're lucky") but characteristically to the point.
Austin Chronicle: How did you discover Tim Treadwell?
Werner Herzog: I think it's not that I discovered him. He discovered me. This kind of character somehow stumbles into my path, even though he was dead already. People like Dieter Dengler [of Little Dieter Needs to Fly] find me, Fitzcarraldo finds me, Aguirre finds me. And, of course, in this case, it was a chain of coincidences. Once Treadwell came across my path, I instantly decided I would do the film.
AC: How did the film get started?
WH: [Producer Erik Nelson] showed me an article about Treadwell and said, "Read this. We are doing this. It's a fantastic film." And I read it, rushed back to his office, and asked, "Who is directing it?" And he said, "I'm kind of directing it." I said, "No," with my German accent, "I will direct this movie!" And we shook hands and that was that.
AC: Treadwell shot more than 100 hours of footage, and there's just one editor credited in Grizzly Man. Can you describe the process of paring down this footage, shot over five years?
WH: Well, you have to understand that I started shooting [Grizzly Man] on Labor Day last year. Twenty-nine days later, I delivered the edited first version of the film for Sundance, which had the commentary recorded and mixed in already. So for editing there was something like nine or 10 or 11 days. And with 100 hours, you need that much time just to view it. I had four intelligent people sifting through the material. They were very precisely instructed by me what to look for. I kept looking over their shoulders and found things that were discarded already and fished them out of the garbage because they were some of the most beautiful moments. Nobody understood the beauty of these moments, like the paws of a fox on the roof [of Treadwell's tent]. I ultimately saw between 15 and 20 hours of Treadwell's footage myself.
AC: In the film, you speak of getting Treadwell's last tape late in the process of editing the film. [This tape includes audio of the fatal attack upon Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, captured when Treadwell's camera was running with the lens cap on.] How did you receive it?
WH: Through Jewel Palovak, who is the custodian of Treadwell's estate. [Ed. note: Palovak is also credited as Grizzly Man's co-executive producer.] One or two days before we ended the process of editing, this tape was given to me. And in the very last moment, 20 hours before I finished the final cut of the film, I incorporated elements of it. I listened to it on camera, and you see me from behind, and you see Jewel Palovak appalled, trying to read my face and my feelings. It's a very deep moment in the film, and it was instantly clear: We are not into a snuff movie. We are into a film that has to respect the privacy of an individual death. There is a dignity in dying. I would not use this audio.
AC: Watching the film, it was clear that as interested as you are in investigating the different aspects of Treadwell's character, there was also a great deal of respect
WH: I even give him space enough to be a great star. That's what he really wanted to be. I give him the best music. I give him credit for having created footage of unknown and unprecedented beauty that no studio could ever create, not for any money in the world. But of course I differ with him. I have an ongoing argument with him throughout the film.
AC: About the elemental beauty and harmony in nature?
WH: Well, not about beauty but about the sentimentalized view of Mother Nature. Of course there is a school of thinking and it's connected to New Age thinking, it's connected to the Disneyfication of wild nature as if the world out there, as if the universe was in harmony. I think it's a gross misconception. It's misreading what's out there. I say in the film that I see chaos, hostility, and murder. [laughs] I have an ongoing argument, but it's never a nasty argument. I argue like I argue with my brothers, and I love them.
AC: You call Treadwell paranoid, you compare him to [Klaus] Kinski
WH: No, no, no. I do not call him paranoid. There are moments that look like paranoia.
AC: Do you think he was insane?
WH: Absolutely not. But he had moments where he would read signs left for him in a spontaneous momentary paranoid way. But I think that happens to men in utmost solitude out there, on a wild island, stranded on the Arctic ice. They see a sign in the sky, and it's the ultimate threat for them all of a sudden. The relationship toward the real world becomes slightly warped.
AC: You describe Treadwell's shooting multiple takes and "searching for himself through the lens of a camera." He calls himself "a kind warrior." You call yourself a "soldier of cinema." And would you say that you and Treadwell are similar as artists?
WH: Not really, but we have some common ground, and I can appreciate another great filmmaker who is out there. I can tell there was something big about him. The kind of insight we gain through him into our innermost nature is just astonishing. And that's the key to the film. It's not a film about wild nature. It is a film about the deepest human condition. And you cannot see that on a screen easily again in such depth and in such brilliance and with such clairvoyance and with such outspokenness.
AC: In your nonfiction work, we see a blending of fictionalized moments and what we think of as conventional documentary technique. You spoke at Sundance about staging a scene with a droplet of water, glycerin, actually
WH: The water drop scene and the dialogue that I purely invented is in The White Diamond. But your question is somehow poking into what is documentary for me. I'm after some deeper truth [rather] than just facts. To find some sort of ecstasy of truth, I stylize, I fabricate, I stage, I invent dialogue all over the place. So when you speak about documentaries, do it with a necessary caution. I have to make a distinction, though, with a film like Grizzly Man, since Treadwell was dead already when I started the film, you do not juggle around with this material, and you don't do it in your own style. You just don't do it. It's not permissible. If Treadwell were alive let's say he were only injured and I were doing the film, using his footage, I would tell him right away, "Timothy, we are going to invent and will stage some dialogue. Here is the text. Let's rehearse it and shoot it five, six, 12 times if you are not good enough right away." But in our case since he was dead before I even got into the project, there are different rules, of course.
AC: What can you tell us about your projects coming up?
WH: The Wild Blue Yonder is finished, and it will be released probably at the end of August. It might be in the Venice Film Festival, where I'm going to show it. Rescue Dawn is a feature film starting in Thailand starting around the 15th of August, principal photography. I don't want to say too much. It's a feature film, and Christian Bale is going to be the star, and Steve Zahn and a couple of others.
AC: I don't want to say that seems uncharacteristic for you, because you're a very distinctive artist, but in some superficial way it seems unusual for you to be working with a matinee star.
WH: I'm working with a man who is a terrific actor, and couldn't care less whether he is a star or not. In our case it coincides that the man is a star, but Kinski was a star, Donald Sutherland was a star, Isabelle Adjani was a star. And they're just terrific actors, and they're well-cast. Christian Bale is one of the best if not the best of his generation, and he's extremely well-cast, so you'll just have to take it as it is.
Grizzly Man opens in Austin on Friday, Aug. 19. For a review and show times, see Film Listings.